WeHolidays in the Old City

At a Rosh Hashanah luncheon I attended, everyone was asked to share a fact/parable/meaningful message about the holiday. Those of you who have been reading my blog know that I love neuroscience, so when it was my turn I decided to discuss LSD, and how it was used to a certain extent in a religious context to communicate with gods.

Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) was originally discovered in 1938 by Albert Hofmann at the Sandoz pharmaceutical company. Sandoz was interested in alkaloids obtained from ergot, a substance produced by a parasitic fungus which can infest rye and wheat (making them poisonous). By mixing lysergic acid (the core structure of ergot alkaloids) with different chemicals, Hoffman synthesized LSD.

LSD is rapidly absorbed in the body. It is extremely psychoactive with a typical dose of 50-100 micrograms (0.05 to 0.10 milligrams). As a result, a drop the size of the period at the end of this sentence is usually placed on a sugar cube or a mail stamp and licked or consumed orally. In the brain, it binds with relatively high affinity to at least eight different serotonin (5-HT) receptor subtypes. However, the hallucinogenic properties require binding to the 5-HT2A receptors. 

There are also other drugs like magic mushrooms (psilocybin) and mescaline (from the peyote cactus) that trigger hallucinations by acting on 5-HT2A receptors. Back to LSD:

There are not necessarily physiological issues with LSD, but the main problem is behavioral toxicity (adverse behaviors associated with getting or, in this case, taking the drug). Hallucinating a garbage truck as a giant Krispy Kreme donut could be problematic (don’t try to bite moving trucks). 

With our weekly neuroscience lesson (arguably psychopharmacology) out of the way, here’s a recap of my fifth week in Israel. Mostly because of the holidays I didn’t really go adventuring this week, so I don’t have a lot of pictures to share (sorry), but here’s one of Jesse acting as a table during a break in Ulpan so I could type something!

Jesse and me in the cafeteria (he’s a good table and a better friend).

Sunday:

Shalom! This past week was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and one of the two most holy days in Judaism. I was fortunate enough to spend them in the Old City in Jerusalem (העיר העתיקה בירושלימ –– ha-ir ha-atikah b-yerushel-y-im). On Sunday, I woke up and did some work before going to the gym (only to find out they were closed). Instead of working out, I packed and just relaxed before taking the light rail with Jesse and Alex to the Old City. When we got there, we went to the hostel we were staying at, The Heritage House, and then went to Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, where Rabbis and Cantors in the Reform movement are ordained.

I had a bit of a Jewish identity crisis/revelation while at services that only became more severe/evolved throughout the holiday. Essentially, I’ve decided that I want to learn more about all the traditions and actions I perform (for instance, why do we light candles on Shabbat, why do we make latkes for Hanukkah, etc.). Additionally, I love the communal component of the holidays and want to continue celebrating them regularly at home. Some of the best moments here have been hanging out and talking with friends over a good Shabbat meal.

Anyway, after services, we went to dinner with a philanthropic family who does a lot of great work with Israeli soldiers and integrating them back into civilian life. Their house was absolutely gorgeous. It’s essentially an apartment building turned into a giant hosting venue. They have this really cool sink in the shape of an Ark (big cabinet that houses the Torah, or Old Testament scrolls) that when you turn the faucet (in the shape of a Jewish Star) opens and spews out water!

They also have a rooftop garden with an incredible view of Dome of the Rock. When we got there, we spoke with the Clamans’ niece and her fiancé. She’s in medical school here, and it was interesting to discuss the differences between the system here and in America (in Israel, they accept you for a seven year program from the get-go, while in America you have to do undergraduate work, typically four years, and then apply for a four year medical school program).

After talking with them for a while, we got called down into dinner. Something new (to me) was a Rosh Hashanah seder, which is supposed to symbolize prayers and hopes for the new year (read more here). Then, interspersed with wonderful food (and a fish head which was, frankly, disturbing to gaze into), we had some deep conversations about the meaning of Rosh Hashanah and the purpose of G-D creating humans.

The conversation was a little bit uncomfortable for me and Jesse (we recapped later) and only exacerbated my religious identity crisis. A lot of the guests discussed how they wake up and ask, “What can I do for G-D today?” or “What does G-D want me to do today?” I never think of that. I don’t have any enlightening conversations with G-D. I do pray, and like the idea of there being a G-D, but am not 100% sure (i.e. I’m agnostic).

So, I’m not quite sure how to identify as a Jew. It’s interesting because Judaism can refer to a culture (or a people) and a religion. There are lots of secular Jews, as well as religious Jews. This conversation just outlined for me that I’m not really gung-ho about the faith-based component of Judaism, though I’m not areligious. Religiously, I’m not entirely sure where I stand. Culturally, though, I’m definitely Jewish.

After dinner, we all went to the Western Wall (where I tried to figure out my Jewish identity). It was really meaningful to be there on Rosh Hashanah. Then it was off to bed!

Monday:

We woke up and went to a Reform temple (about a thirty minute walk). The services were nice, but I prefer English explanations/transitions between prayers to really understand where I am. They were also extremely long and Jesse and I got a little restless towards the end. Nonetheless, I had an enjoyable time reading commentary about the Torah.

One interesting thing I learned is the potential root for the D’var Torah (sermon/explanation of the weekly portion of the Old Testament). Because the Torah was originally in Hebrew, it needed to be translated for lay people who didn’t speak that language. It’s believed that some creative liberties were introduced into these translations and additional comments evolved into a sermon on the week’s parsha (section).

Another interesting fact describes why Torah is read on Mondays and Thursdays. Traditionally, it was only read on Shabbat, however, not everyone could attend the readings in the synagogues (farmers, for instance, who needed to work the fields). So, as a manner of ensuring everyone could hear the Torah, two additional days were added during the work week.

After the service, Jesse and I split up from Alex and went to find a contact at the Kotel to place us for lunch (he places students with families for Shabbat and holidays). Because services were longer than expected, we got there too late, though, so we ended up heading back to the hostel and had a feast of apples dipped in honey and popcorn! We then took a great nap and went to find a Tashlich service (where sins are “cast” away). After a forty minute walk there, we couldn’t find the location so we gave up and Jesse and I went back to the Kotel to find our contact so we could find out where to go for dinner (Alex already had plans).

We wound up at a nice Rabbi’s house (forty five minute walk) where we had another seder, some food, and interesting conversations. Essentially, we discussed moving to Israel (called making Aliyah). One lady had an interesting line: “It doesn’t matter where you are born, from, or live, that place is only temporary. It’s a vacation. If you are a Jew, the only permanent place for you is Israel [paraphrased].”

This was also somewhat uncomfortable because I don’t, at this time, want to move to Israel. I love America and call it my home. However, I also acknowledge the rise (for the umpteenth time) of antisemitism in America and greatly appreciate being able to live freely as a Jew in Israel with no concern for religious persecution. So, food for thought.

After dinner, we walked back to the Old City, where Jesse and I went to the Western Wall again (grappling with the never-ending question of Jewish identity, now considering how my location can affect my perspective).

Western Wall Monday night.

Tuesday

We went to a hippie-spiritual-musical service for the second day of Rosh Hashanah (which I don’t normally celebrate at home—the Torah only mentions one day, but you can read about the reason for both here). The service was a lot of fun! There were snacks and interpretive dance and it was nice. We left early, though, because we had a placement for lunch and were told not to be late, though we weren’t told the time. So, we got there around 12:15 PM and ended up waiting for a solid two hours before some of the family got back. It was 3:30 before we began eating and we didn’t leave until close to 6:15, so we spent a solid fourth of the day there.

Luckily, the food was great, the family and other guests were nice, and we didn’t have any super involved conversations about Jewish identity. Instead, we all went around introducing ourselves and discussed a fun fact/parable/meaningful message about Rosh Hashanah. Naturally, I discussed how LSD was used to connect to the gods (see in depth explanation above).

After the meal, we went back to the hostel and packed. Alex and I went to the Western Wall again before we all took the light rail and came home to study, relax, and sleep.

Wednesday:

Went to Ulpan and then came home and took a phat nap before going to the gym and doing homework. That was it! Not a very exciting day.

Thursday:

Woke up, went to Ulpan, aced my oral examination (see the transcript at the end! I’m learning!), and went back home early to do some work and take a nap. Then I went to the gym with David (one of my roommates) and made a sandwich before going to do laundry (still not a fan). While I was waiting, I talked to a friend and did some work before going to Japan Japan! I signed up for their rewards program (which took 25 minutes because of the language barrier) and saved three shekels (roughly 80 cents) on my meal! I watched some TV and talked to Ashley (my girlfriend) while I chowed down and then did some more work and went to bed. 

Friday:

Woke up, made an egg and went to the gym before grabbing lunch (I had Hummus Fateh!) with a friend from Switzerland! He speaks SO many languages, it’s wild. We had some interesting conversations about how he thinks. Like when I think of something, the little voice inside my head is in English. For him, it depends on what he’s thinking about. I don’t remember the exact languages he thinks about different things in, but it was like English for math, French for political science, and Albanian for random topics. Super cool.

After lunch, I just went back and did some work before going to dinner at a family’s house. The food was excellent! Some spinach and mushroom veggie casserole (or cake? I’m not sure how to describe it.) We had some tense discussions, though, which I didn’t quite enjoy. Essentially, a question asked by another dinner guest was misinterpreted as insulting/testing the veracity of the Torah, and I made the mistake of pushing a little further (my bad) which resulted in our getting a crash course on the history of the Torah before branching off into side arguments and counterpoints and it was a little heated. I think there was an issue with our host not really hearing our points and trying to tell us what we were saying and twisting it to fit his own narrative, but I’m definitely biased in my perspective, so who knows. Alas, we went back home after that and then hung out some before going to bed.

Saturday:

Woke up and did some work before going to the gym. After that, I went to a Thrive leader’s house for Shabbat lunch. As always, it was wonderful (Jesse had baked the challah this week and it was delicious!). From there, I came back and studied for the Ulpan final, talked to Ashley, and played too many games on Apple Arcade (huge fan).

Conclusion:

This week was not necessarily as conventionally exciting as my others have been here in Israel, yet I think this week has pushed me to reexamine some of my beliefs in a way that is beneficial. I’m very grateful for the experience—especially staying in the Old City for Rosh Hashanah (though I’m fine not doing it again because we walked about 25 miles or 40 kilometers since all public transportation was closed for the holiday).

Thanks for reading this week’s blog and I’ll post again in TWO weeks because I’m going on a trip to Bulgaria, Greece, and Egypt and want to enjoy it to the fullest!

Transcript for Oral Examination

This is the transcript for the partner exercise that Jesse and I did. The setting is a restaurant. We had a real coffee cup and salad as props.

?שלום! אני ג׳סי. אני עובד פה. מה שלומך

?כל בסדר, תודה! ואתה

?מצוין! מה אתה רוצה לשתות

?אהה, יש כפה

—כן, גם יש קוקה קולה, מימ, מיץ

?רק רגה! איזה מיץ

?תפוז ותפוח. אתה רוצה מיץ

.אהה, לא. תודה. כפה, בבקשה.

.בסדר. שתי דקות.

פה…

!תודה

?מה אתה רוצה לאכול

?אהה, אני לא יודע. מה אתה אוהב

.אני אוהב את הסלט הגדול

.המם… אני רוצה את הסלט הגדול עם דג

!אוקי

!אתה אוהב את הסלט הזה

.ככה ככה

?מצטער! אתה רוצה משהו אחר

?כמה עולה רק דג

?שמונה שקלים. אתה רוצה

?אהה, מה השאה

.השאה רבה לאחת

.המם… אין זמן למשהו אחר

.אוקי, מצטער

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